A t 06:45 am on 22 October 2020, the Defence Research and Development Organisation conducted its final trial of the Nag anti-tank missile at the Pokharan field firing ranges. It was a landmark event in India’s quest for an indigenous defence base and industry. Nag has a number of variants depending on launch platforms, from manportable to air launched. In an increasingly stressed economy, any savings from indigenous defence breakthroughs is always welcome, especially since India is amongst the world’s largest importers of military hardware. In the euphoria a footnote requires greater attention, for the first trial of Nag was held in 1990.
All defence equipment take time to research, develop and put into production. There can’t be shortcuts to success in this field, for lives and national security is at stake. But for a country that can send a successful moon mission, to take 30 years to develop an anti-tank missile is reason enough to pause and think deeply about skills, priorities and capabilities. The same country with such varying success rates cannot but have deep introspection about its structures and management of defence research and development. Delays compel acquisitions based on imports that cost a lot of money. It is a little remembered fact but so true that it must be pondered seriously. In terms of defence research and development, India and the United States began their government structures in the same year, 1958. The much derided Krishna Menon sanctioned the creation of DRDO, while then President Dwight Eisenhower raised Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. Since then, the success rate of both DRDO and DARPA can be compared dispassionately, and which organisation comes across as winner is apparent to even a novice. There are no excuses other than simple structural and mindset issues, for India wasn’t a novice then.
At Independence, India had the most advanced industrial and scientific base amongst all Asian countries. Little wonder that it was the first to develop a jet combat aircraft, space and nuclear advancements were second to none continentally. That logical follow-up steps were not taken is now a matter of debate and of little consequence since the time has passed. What needs to be undertaken now is a serious study about hardware priorities, emerging threats, economic opportunities, and emerging technologies. For all of these fields, and more, conjoin to make a defence product usable, scientifically viable, and economically rational.
‘Vocal for Local’ will only see results once the country is willing to introspect dispassionately, and arrive at decisions that may seem harsh but will serve the national interest in the long run. And, for starters, it is important to accept the fact that none has the monopoly over national interest. For numerous private sector enterprises, from small to large, have the capability and prioritise India, but haven’t been allowed to make the breakthrough that is essential to keep them afloat and interested. All that happens for them is the constant dangling of a bait for field trials. The light at the end of the tunnel has not shone on them, and until it does, ‘Vocal for Local’ will remain a mere slogan.